«the question remains: what is to be done inside the museum of global capitalism?»

Arseny Zhilyaev spoke with an art theorist Maria Chehonadskikh for The Center for Experimental Museology.

Arseny Zhilyaev: Masha, I know that your coming into being as a philosopher, or, at least, as an activist, began with a reflection on the precarious social situation of cultural workers, and more broadly, of all those without steady employment. This phenomenon is known as “precariat”, [a social class of people suffering from “precarity.”] I would like to begin our conversation about museums by clarifying your stance on this issue. A museum, especially in its traditional rendition, functions as an extremely stabilizing factor in regard to life. In this sense, it is not unlike a cemetery, or, to chose an opposite metaphor, a lab that creates new life through synthesis – whichever view you choose to uphold entirely depends on your intellectual affiliations. Either way museums are about the regulation or indexing of life, about making it more orderly. There is one view of precarity which pins it against the industrial Fordist capitalism: the unstable employment, lacking in predictability and job security, and the concomitant amorphous subjectivity typical of the late 20th c. and early 21st c. as opposed to the assembly line production, firmly delineated, clear-cut professional identities, and (ideally) socio-democratic states. However, it is obvious that the return to this earlier alternative is neither feasible, nor desirable if one looks at it from the standpoint of radical emancipatory politics. In your opinion, what is the function of the so-called “stability” in the construction of human subjectivity and, more generally, in the social sphere today and in the future? And what is the role of the museum in this regard?

Maria Chehonadskikh: I would say that my coming into being as a philosopher began in the early 2000s when I was reading the texts of Lacan and other French philosophers as a student at Voronezh State University. As you might well remember, this fascinating pastime was constantly interrupted by the need to make a living somehow. The paradoxical situation of the late 2000s, when those employed in the sphere of arts, culture or humanities completely lost their social status and the prestige associated with it, has ultimately prompted me to critically engage with the phenomenon of precarity. Today, however, the question of nonconventional employment, the way I see it, goes way beyond the confines of sociology.

The project of Pantheon of USSR

Before turning to the question of museums, it is important to stress that most of the theorists dealing with precarity tend to call into question the neat demarcation line between Fordism as a form of social stability and post-Fordism as a form of radical social instability that you have mentioned. Parenthetically, this dichotomy stems from the works of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who summarized the discussion of the transition to the post-industrial information society in the spirit of neo-Marxism. However, neither Hardt nor Negri are really concerned with the forms of employment. Rather, they are interested in the new forms of labor, and not the forms of employment as such. That is why they chose to focus on the so-called immaterial labor, and it is this immaterial labor that is at the core of their analysis.

Critical theorists today do not discuss the dichotomy of stability versus flexibility for it has become obvious that this dichotomy has never existed in the first place and moreover, that it used to be employed as a mere theoretical matrix to facilitate the analysis. First of all, the post-operaist theorists themselves have long since described post-Fordism as a new form of a rigid bio-political machine of financial control. Secondly, it has turned out that precarity was but a neoliberal prelude to what followed: a long-lasting suite of austerity measures and policies that we are still observing up to this day. I am talking here about the dismantling of the system of social housing, of free education and healthcare, the tightening of the neo-colonial grip over the countries of Southern Europe, the wars that are currently waged in Northern Africa and the Middle East, and finally, the unending “regeneration” of cities, as well as the “debtfarism” – increasing reliance on credit to compensate for inadequate wages. [ 1 ] 1. See Lazzarato's latest works about debt: Lazzarato, M. The Making of the Indebted Man: Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. — Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012; Lazzarato, M. Governing by Debt. — Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015. .

contemporary museums and universities reinvent themselves as something totally new: a commercial recreation center, a place of leisure with an array of goods and services for the visitors to choose from

I do not mean to say that the very problem of precarious labor has vanished. I am merely trying to point towards the more integrated and overarching forms of analysis that can be applied to this phenomenon and that are being discussed by Marxists today. This analysis has to do with the problem of social reproduction in the neoliberal economy based on the destructive dynamics of financial crisis, during which the accumulation of capital is brought about not by the reproduction of the work force, but by the deflation of the work force through the reduction of labor cost way below its ability to reproduce. This is accomplished by driving the insolvent population out to the margins of production and consumption. In other words, insolvency goes hand-in-hand with capital accumulation. This is hardly surprising or novel if one thinks of the postcolonial world. However, the countries of Western Europe have experienced a peculiar shift in this respect: whereas in the 19th century low labor cost was the driving force behind industrialization, today it is aligned with the proliferation of different forms of “risk” capital. Let us consider a straightforward example: a factory closure in the town of N leaves five thousand jobless and destitute workers in its wake. However, the construction of a new shopping mall is planned to begin on the former industrial premises. The laid off workers seek jobs at the construction site and work there till the reconstruction of the building is complete. Alternatively, the very same workers can choose to leave for Moscow and seek employment there at a similar construction site, working “in rotation” for several months at a time before coming back to their native town or migrating elsewhere as seasonal workers do. They will continue to migrate from one place to the next until all former plants and factories across the country are thus gentrified. One can employ other variables to illustrate this pattern and to talk about artists renting an atelier or environmental refugees or migrants fleeing a particular environmental disaster. As we can see here, the cycle of “precarious employment—regeneration—accumulation” perpetuates itself as some bad infinity of the neoliberal economy and can only be broken by a radical revolutionary process. This pattern of capital accumulation successfully exploits precarious labor and is quite “stable” at (doing) that. [ 2 ] 2. On the crisis of social reproduction (a case study of Hurriacane Katrina) see Seymour, B. Drowning by Numbers: The Non-Reproduction of New Orleans, 2006. On the issue of social reproduction from the feminist perspective, see Federici, S. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. — Brooklyn: Common Notions / PM Press, 2012. .

I am trying to suggest here that it is imperative to turn the question of stability and instability into that of social reproduction. And it is here that museums can serve as an apt illustration of what I am talking about. If one approaches the issue of precarious employment systemically, it will transpire that a museum as a public institution also relies on different forms of social reproduction. It requires professional expertise and trained staff members providing curatorial care and maintenance. Suffice it to take a closer look at the current state of museums in Russia in order to answer the question that you raised earlier. Only those of them that rely on their own financial resources (i.e. private museums) stand a chance of surviving today. Others are forced to reproduce a particular ideology in exchange for funding (and we do not necessarily mean that the money always derives from public funds and government agencies). In that sense, it is noteworthy, that the “regeneration” of public parks and museums in Moscow is funded by the government (i.e. from the public funds) and is aligned with the national model of state control over the creative youth.

Capitalism tends to “stabilize” all life forms. Today it is worth talking about the ways in which the stability has grown unstable, or more generally, about the ideology of “unstable stability” that is thrust upon us, imposed upon us as if it were the most natural modus operandi for a society. I do not think that subjectivity has much to do with the phenomenon of stability. There is nothing stable about our kind of stability to begin with. We are determined and affected by a whole range of external factors. Marx spoke of the human essence as “the ensemble of the social relations” [ 3 ] 3. On the crisis of social reproduction (a case study of Hurriacane Katrina) see Seymour, B. Drowning by Numbers: The Non-Reproduction of New Orleans, 2006. On the issue of social reproduction from the feminist perspective, see Federici, S. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. — Brooklyn: Common Notions / PM Press, 2012. . Vygotsky once added that it is an “ensemble” of the social relations that “grow inward” [ 4 ] 4. Lev Vygotsky, "The History of Development of Higher Psychological Functions" in The Collected Works in six volumes, v.3. (Moscow, 1983), 160. , an astonishing “ready-made” of sorts, a singularity that is uniquely capable of capturing the mood and the “tonality” of a given society.

Arseny Zhilyayev: I do not have issues with the Marxist interpretation of an individual as an ensemble of social relations “grown inward” that quite remarkably is capable of reflecting the tonality of the society at large, of reflecting the collective through the personal. However, it is this specific interpretation that prompts us to consider a certain rigidity (not to say stability) and inertia of the human nature. Personally, I think that the question of stability is a question of scale and rhythm. If one takes it for granted that subjectivity emerges as a specific recurrent response to trauma, then one has to acknowledge the importance of the very mechanisms of repetition or reoccurrence that determine the relatively stable boundaries of this or that individual. And just like the former brick factory workers in the example that you have mentioned, who will continue touring Russia in the function of construction workers for as long as all of the nation’s factories and plants are being revamped as recreation centers of contemporary art, subjectivity will also continue to reproduce its own response to a traumatic situation as it routinely evolves from day to day.

But what happens when reality changes way quicker than the subjectivity that takes time to evolve and to take shape? What happens if the construction workers – the former workers that you have talked about – are not invited to work in Moscow building new recreational facilities, because the development of the new 3D printing technologies makes it possible to create any architectural form with the help of a single handler at the computer? Today’s educational system, which encompasses almost two decades of studies (and the many years of self-study and post-college training), is becoming increasingly incongruent with the profound transformations currently underway on the job market. Oftentimes the professional vocations proposed to prospective students are nothing but the most popular form of investment at a given moment and there is absolutely no guarantee that this investment will ever pay off or yield profit. Think back to Voronezh: today, just like 15 years ago, one often gets to hear all across provincial Russia that studying towards a degree in Economics at a regional University is a good idea because this degree assures that a graduate receives the qualifications required to be able to make a decent living regardless of the kind of social transformations underway in the society. In the spirit of our times, the much coveted “department of Economics” is today supplemented by a Theological seminary with its promise of a career within the Russian Orthodox Church, and even a degree in Philosophy, which is widely perceived as a necessary starting point for a career in the public office. However, in reality it often turns out that the professions that are currently in high demand on the education market, are simply unmarketable in the real world and are thus bad choices for prospective students. They are the products of speculative economy and linguistic inflation in and of themselves: a neoliberal agenda concealed behind the frontispiece of what seems to be a socialist party or the power of the oligarchic minority masquerading as “real democracy.” In due course all of this can bring about the utter bankruptcy of the humankind as participants in the labor market.

Untitled Restaurant, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
© STUA 2012

When you say that the museums and other cultural institutions feel pressed to rely on their own financial resources and to demonstrate ideological loyalty to the powers that be, the way you articulate this issue implies a high level of auto-reflexivity and planning on their part. However, I am not really convinced that this is really the case. I would suggest that the state institutions operate under the same assumptions as those who tout or champion a degree in Economics and the profession of “economist” as attractive career options. The recent financial crises seem to highlight the fact that the capitalist financial system is completely devoid of auto-reflexivity, just as it is devoid of the capacity to consciously predict or anticipate one’s own future. As long as the system can rely on a certain safety cushion—i.e. the fundamental [public] trust towards the banking system and the government resource to buttress it, we are more likely to anticipate the disappearance of the humankind as the bearers of specific education and loyalty, rather than the disappearance of this system.

Why should we support the reproduction of human subjectivity through museums if it is gradually losing its importance for labor management and organization? Whereas throughout the 20th century (in the very least) an individual used to be a reflection of, a response to the traumas wrought by specific social relations, in the 21st century an individual’s personality should rather be conceived of as an impossibility to adequately capture, reflect or respond to the rapidly changing social relations. A crisis of representation of that kind echoes the story of early Soviet artists in the years immediately following the 1917 revolution who were searching for an appropriate realist method while the reality around them was changing so rapidly that the very pace of this transformation made their creative pursuits rather difficult at best. Social engineering or the production of a rather weird, auto-reflexive realism capable of tossing away any deeply entrenched methodology or combining different methodologies depending on specific circumstances of each particular case might do as potential responses to such a situation. In both of these cases a museum plays the defining role as an institution capable of becoming the source of development due to the archive it contains and the promises of its potential actualization. This is applicable, among other things, to Alexander Bogdanov’s and Andrey Platonov’s fascination with the ideas of Russian cosmism (although, the intellectual influences that they both experienced were by no means confined to cosmism alone, and that influence too, was obviously not without their limitations.) Russian cosmists regard museums as a way to overcome both social and biological limitations of the humankind through social planning and progress. I am aware that you are not convinced by the optimism of technological utopianism regarding the absolutisation of the role of science in the emancipation of the humankind. I also know that you tend to highlight the very particular, critical attitude towards such views in the works of Platonov. Could you, please, elaborate on your position in this respect?

Maria Chehonadskikh: You are absolutely right. We should talk about the crisis of subjectivity instead of discussing the crisis of capitalism, has the potential to turn the entire planet into a scorched desert in the nearest future. This is exactly why contemporary museums and universities are reinventing themselves as something completely new: they transform themselves into commercial recreation centers providing a wide range of goods and services for the visitors to consume. The project for a new campus for Central Saint Martins Art and Design College in downton London is a good case in point. The building of this school imitates the typical architecture of a shopping mall and resembles, for one, the “Evropeiisky” shopping mall in Moscow. What a convenient form of architecture that is: on the one hand, it dictates a specific educational mode, on the other it makes sure that the college can be shut down at any moment and refitted with a proper business-center of creative industries on the same premises. This is when I am compelled to come back to the question of social reproduction. Today’s capitalism does not need museums or universities in their old sense, in the sense that was ascribed to them by the philosophers of the Enlightenment or the 20th century social democrats. The neoliberal bureaucrats seem to be sincerely convinced that the entire world can be revamped as one huge business-center.

If we come back to the question of subject and subjectivity, then again, the point is that the creation of the reserve army of the unemployed benefits, in Marx’s terms, the financial markets. Poverty begets wealth. The unemployed migrate and emigrate. Stadiums and palaces for the Olympic games, shopping malls and elite housing are then built on the abandoned lands that these people leave behind them. These new neoliberal monuments come to replace the universities, workers’ clubs, museums and libraries of the yesteryear. Poverty, as we know all too well, is a bottomless pit. People all across the world live in abysmal, horrid conditions, and the devastation has already reached truly catastrophic proportions . And yet had today’s capitalism found it lucrative to fill the world with 3D printers, it would have done so a long time ago. You know it all too well, but China’s economy, for that matter, is held in place solely by cheap labor force, so the spread of high technologies will deal it a fatal blow. In that sense Platonov, unlike Bogdanov, never worshipped technology per se. Indeed, the younger Platonov believed that it is possible to divert the course of rivers or even to blow up the Ural mountains, to conquer nature and to overcome its vital horror. However, from the 1920s on, a new motive transpires in his writing: that of liberating, emancipating nature and the animal world from the shackles of capitalism. Nature as we know it is the product of capitalism, argues Platonov. A drought, for instance, is the outcome of barbaric agrarian policies. He believed that communism should promote renewable energy sources. Aligned with this idea was his theory of added value: everything that humans take or extract from nature must be returned to it in amounts, exceeding those that were originally extracted. This was the way to emancipate nature from its destitution and bareness. This is why there are so many different kinds of machinery in Platonov’s books: an “electric sun” or a “photo magnetic resonance transformer” that enable people to produce energy in a more sustainable and economical way without exhausting the bowels of the Earth. Perhaps, it makes sense to speak of nature and contemporary humans as of a global museum of capitalism.

a museum installation that works to completely immerse the viewer into a certain problematic situation is capable of translating the complex and abstract nature of the processes that determine the evolution of social relations into a more specific and existential idiom

This is exactly why I am saying that we are determined by multiple exterior factors: the position within the relations of production [what Marx and Engels termed Produktionsverhältnisse], power regulations, environmental conditions and climate. Subjectivity constantly changes its shape, metamorphoses depending on how these factors affect the subject. However, besides the influence of these factors there is also resistance to them that we need to keep in mind. If it was not for this resistance we would have been slaves to external forces, the machines of perception, adaptation mechanisms to our habitat, but that is a different matter. Indeed, the unexpected changes in the structure of production, especially in the time of crisis, as well as the millisecond intervals between financial transactions go beyond the existential framework of human time, but that does not mean that we necessarily have to accommodate these non-human temporalities. Even a machine cannot do that sometimes, so it has to be updated and improved all the time. What Vygotsky really meant by that definition of his, the one that speaks of the “ensemble” of the social relations that “grow inward”, was that an individual does not merely passively reflect the external factors, but also actively “reflects that reflection.” In other words, human consciousness is a set of responses’s reactions to the environmental stimulation: a person understands what exactly it was that has got imprinted onto his or her consciousness and starts pondering how to reflect back that imprint. We gain some modicum of control over the external factors through our very awareness of them. For Vygotsky, awareness manifests itself through our ability to act. But this has to be a very specific form of awareness. There are different ways to process information and to become aware of something, and some are not as efficacious as we would have liked them to be. This, of course, is an utterly Spinozian thesis.

You were saying that it is important to enhance the flexibility and adaptableness of our responses, to come up with specific hybrid models of responses to external factors. I believe that this hybrid model is better suited to the neoliberal demand for creativity, spontaneity, resourcefulness, entrepreneurial spirit and “financial self-reliance.” Why is this so? I think it is because in this case we have no control over the external factors, we only synthesize them into some sorts of clusters of responses. Hence, a particular kind of empiricism takes shape: we collect different experiences and facts, synthesize them and then present them in this or that form. We try to adapt to the system. Such a synthesis does not really change anything radically or fundamentally. This modus operandi was understandable in the early Soviet period when the artists were trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing reality around them, because the very scale of the unfolding transformations was mindboggling in terms of their radical historical novelty. But do we see anything new around us today? And if we do, do we really need to keep up with these changes or react to them at all? Instead, I suggest we follow in the steps of Vygotsky and Spinoza and consider whether it is possible to produce a certain kind of autonomy, by which I do not mean complete indifference to the social reality around, but the ability to control the situation that we have mentioned earlier, which enhances our agency, our capacity to act. Such an approach implies a totally different conception of art and museums. What do I mean by that? Suppose, I am fully aware of my current financial situation and social position. I understand, that the means and resources that I have at my disposal make it impossible for me to construct any new model of sociality, however, having analyzed my situation I can offer a new production model and a new model of aesthetics. Say, if I decide to make a movie, I will use the ordinary gadgets at hand: a mobile phone and a cheap video camera. If I ponder realism, then I ponder the manipulative function of montage, consider the strategies that might help me to defy this manipulativeness and wonder what should be included into the frame. Finally, I speculate how all of this together might affect what I want to say and my intended audience. I was very impressed by the Lav Diaz and his ability to form a positive aesthetical program based on the aforementioned deliberations, that is to say, based on deliberations about the film-making and the critique of film industry.

Now, let us talk about museums. What is this new program that today’s museums can prescribe? It is the government that usually imposes its programs on museums, while the museum staff are obliged to put it into effect. Just think of the trouble that you recently ran into with the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. That is why Vygotsky readily comes to mind again: how shall we control that kind of thing? Or, rather, in a context like this, we can refer to Lenin: what is needed is a specific analysis of a specific situation and then action. It has just occurred to me that this kind of specific analysis of a specific situation has prompted me to contemplate the idea of a global museum of capitalism. I guess you were trying to do something similar in your latest project in Venice, were you not? Add to that issues pertaining to the use of technology and the nature, migration and emigration and try to ponder the totality of today’s capitalism by aesthetic means.

New campus for Central Saint Martins
© Stanton Williams Architects

Arseny Zhilyayev: Indeed, my Venetian story about the Earth as one giant museum-cum-business center compound is similar to what you are describing when talking about the museum of capitalism. I have got a few interesting observations in this respect. The first one has to do with the activities of network corporations and intelligence services, as well as with the Big Data phenomenon. It is hardly a secret that the digital footprint that we leave behind for the most part ends up either at some data gathering center of the secret services or in the Google or Facebook storage. Perhaps, occasionally local geopolitical circumstances have a part to play in the process and in certain countries servers get duplicated. As a result, the absolute control over this stored information is transferred from the hands of the private sector and into the hands of a particular government. Now, think about the situation that is quite familiar to most researchers: a posthumous publication of the complete works of a certain prominent colleague of ours. Who is going to grant access to the archives for the volume of “personal correspondence via email” to any potential publishers? Obviously, the publishers will not be able to deal with it without soliciting the help of the above mentioned agencies. One hundred years ago this could have been seen as the unlikely realization of the most horrible anti-utopian scenario. If we compare these data centers with Fedorov’s project for a museum we will find a lot of similarities. Fedorov’s museum was supposed to be based on the most thorough and complete accumulation of the data pertaining to all of the humankind. This data was supposed to be studied scientifically in order for the scientists to defeat death and to resolve the social tensions once and for all. Or take, for example, “Pantheon of the USSR”, or a Pantheon of Brains, a research museum designed by psychoneurologist Vladimir Bekhterev, in which, he proposed, the brains of the outstanding (and ultimately, of all) dead Soviet individuals of the nascent socialist state were to be collected and displayed alongside their biographies and list of accomplishments. It does sound radical at first, but when you think about it, the prospective development of Google’s medical projects that have already been publicized, can be regarded as a contemporary equivalent of Bekhterev’s pioneering 1927 proposal. Or take another post-revolutionary visionary, Nikolai Rybnikov who suggested that a museum-research institute should be created to function as an archive containing life stories of all the living. His project could have been easily implemented given today’s state-of-the-art surveillance technology and data archiving.

The major problem here is that the aforementioned institutions that were designed in the melting pot of the “bright socialist future”, clearly focused on the individual and his or her growth and emancipation from exploitation, both social and corporal or physical. At the same time, the phenomenon of data centers that embodies contemporary capitalist museum implies access to both technology and infrastructure that might help solve the biggest challenges confronting humanity today. Instead, these data centers rarely move beyond a very limited agenda: exercising control and helping a very small group of people to amass an even bigger fortune.

on their own accord and without being paid for their efforts people work on creating giant databases full of research data on social movements, the mindset of the young generation, of consumer habits and suchlike matters. are there any traces of traces of communism in it at all?

We can look at this very situation from a different angle. Okay, we are talking about the rise of technologies within the capitalist world that have a lot to do with museum as an idea, that is to say, have something to do with the idea of art as well. This technological framework could have played a considerable role in promoting the development of the humankind. Today it is used in a way we have just talked about that makes it an epitome of universal evil. Yet at the same time, it is still possible to discern in it the possible rudiments of post-capitalist world, that go way beyond all the conceivable ideas about the potential future of the humankind. I am a firm believer in art’s great potentiality when it comes to throwing into sharp relief such alternative scenarios of using and developing whatever capitalism has to offer.

A museum installation that immerses the viewer into a specific problem-based situation is capable of translating the complex, abstract nature of the processes that determine the evolution of social relations, into a more explicit, existential idiom. The experience of this translation is very different from what you get when reading a specialized research or a work of literature or watching a film. The later is no longer able to offer the viewers the necessary kind of complete physical immersion. Visiting an exhibition in the museum of capitalism that allows the viewers to model specific relations, prescribed both by the formal properties of the display and by certain aspects of its content, makes it possible to “rearrange the system of mirrors”, to use Vygotsky’s concept. In a sense, even the practice of Alexander Bogdanov’s Proletkult, which was meant to set the stage for the rise of completely novel artistic practices, can be regarded as an example of such immersive experience. Or take Otto Neurath’s museum project geared towards solving this particular problem. Instead of creating a game-like experience, however, its display actively draws on the intuitively comprehensible visual language that describes abstract processes underway in the capitalist world. Although not without certain reservations, one could also mention here the activity games developed by Soviet philosopher and educationalist Georgy Shchedrovitsky and his followers. It is not that difficult to find plenty of personal accounts detailing the 1980s experience of the simulated game-like situations, dedicated to certain aspects of political or economic activity that helped forge the new type of managers, capable of moving beyond the “minimum subsistence level” of decisions allocated to an average Soviet citizen.

Now let me come back to my last point: my response to the crisis of professional subjectivity as a “capital investment” does not call for the need for outmost flexibility by default that would enable people to adapt to any degree of exploitation. Quite on the contrary, I can see endless opportunities and enormous potential in the use of the intellectual resources available to the humankind today, the resources that might help it rationally guide its own development. To this effect, I believe, it would be more progressive to demand, following [the well-known critic of the Silicon Valley’s ideology] Evgeny Morozov, that the data centers and capitalist museums be socialized, rather than creating an autonomous art system or carving a niche for oneself outside the confines of the global museum.

Maria Chehonadskikh: You have touched upon a really interesting issue: how shall we regard the Soviet avant-garde and its experiments? Can we really argue that the utopian pathos of the 1920s had failed to live up to its full potential solely because it lacked the necessary technological base that we do possess today? In that sense, the opportunities offered by the Internet today can be viewed as a kind of “communism of capital,” to use Paolo Virno’s apt term. What we really need to do is to re-appropriate, reclaim these technologies, and the Italian post-operaist philosophers tell us this is exactly what is happening right now: the antagonism between labor and capital is reflected in the movement for the socialization of capital. Today’s employee owns his or her means of production (for example, a computer) and is gradually collectivizing the products of his or her labor (for instance, when disseminating information free of charge). The government’s move to seize and control these products is painfully at odds with the very evolution of the workforce that now posseses enough autonomy to destroy the previous forms of labor cost relationships. And it is here that art’s privileged situation comes into play. In other words, what did not quite work out in the 1920s is potentially possible today, at least, in the long run.

However, one can approach this issue from a totally different standpoint. The projects of the 1920s, while clearly ahead of their time, did anticipate the technological potential of the future. But is this potential really “communism” or are we talking about the inherently present “communism of capital” again? Personally, I find the latter to be a rather negative trend: what we have here is a society investing a lot of effort and unpaid labor to create the aforementioned monstrous projects of global control. One could say that it collectivizes the products of its labor, but they immediately turn into an additional exploitation of the resources of specific communities, that is to say, become privatized. Socialization transmutes into “gentirifcation.” Just look at Facebook. On their own accord and without being paid for their efforts people work on creating giant databases full of research data on social movements, the mindset of the young generation, of consumer habits and suchlike matters. Are there any traces of traces of communism in it at all?


Let us talk about the avant-garde again. Why should a state collect the brains and biographies of the Soviet people if not for the sake of a planetary encyclopedia of Soviet life? And what is this Soviet life that we are talking about if not a textbook of Marxism-Leninism complete with a showcase of genetic material and an accompanying set of exemplary biographies? Alexei Penzin once wrote an interesting piece titled “The Bio-politics of the Soviet Avant-garde” in which he examined the artistic practices of the avant-garde as a laboratory of contemporary forms of capitalism. Penzin cautions us not not lose sight of the specific context and suggests we speak instead of the communist bio-politics that was geared towards the radical emancipation of an individual. Except, of course, that this emancipation had never been fully completed. And thus we are confronted with a question: might it be that such bio-politics is a dead-end scenario? It is here that I come back to the question of data centers being socialized. The real issue at stake here is what shall be done with this information, how it shall be used? Should we also create our own museums of brains and illustrious biographies? What are these brains, for that matter? It is noteworthy that Bogdanov argued in some of his texts that eugenics was bound to become really important and that it would take on a purely socialist meaning, but what does it really mean? What does this constant allowance for the “socialist meaning”, so prevalent in the 1920s, really mean when we speak of Fordism, Taylorism, eugenics and the primitive accumulation of capital?

I believe that the Left really needs to advance a serious critique of the 1920s from from the left. It is the only way for us to really understand the kind of “communism” that this period propagated. I find traces of it in the words of Platonov and Vygotsky, among other authors, who solved the problem of the shaping, forging of a subject not through the bio-political construction of biographies and genetic pools, but rather by problematizing the shaping of consciousness and by variously conceptualizing the different cultural forms of the realization of the subject. This is partly akin to what you write about wen you write about modeling: Vygotsky’s theory is based on the ordinary imperfect subject, not on the perfect brain that belongs in the Pantheon. But it is this imperfect common subject that can develop new channels and new forms of acting and being in the world. This is what autonomy is all about. It does not tell us about the inner and the outer, the inside and the outside, because it does not operate with these kinds of terms and categories. The only thing it does have is a radical monism, singleness: the self and the environment, as well as the interactions between the self and the environment. We are learning to analyze the very location from which we come and it is this analysis that bring us to conscious action. I totally agree that it is completely impossible to live behind the confines of this system. The question remains, however, what is to be done while we still remain within the global museum of capitalism.

  1. See Lazzarato's latest works about debt: Lazzarato, M. The Making of the Indebted Man: Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. — Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012; Lazzarato, M. Governing by Debt. — Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015.
  2. On the crisis of social reproduction (a case study of Hurriacane Katrina) see Seymour, B. Drowning by Numbers: The Non-Reproduction of New Orleans, 2006. On the issue of social reproduction from the feminist perspective, see Federici, S. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. — Brooklyn: Common Notions / PM Press, 2012.
  3. On the crisis of social reproduction (a case study of Hurriacane Katrina) see Seymour, B. Drowning by Numbers: The Non-Reproduction of New Orleans, 2006. On the issue of social reproduction from the feminist perspective, see Federici, S. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. — Brooklyn: Common Notions / PM Press, 2012.
  4. Lev Vygotsky, "The History of Development of Higher Psychological Functions" in The Collected Works in six volumes, v.3. (Moscow, 1983), 160.